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Ocelot

Leopordus pardalis
Ocelot_520x289

A new ocelot kitten has recently been discovered at the refuge.  See News Release.

 

In the United States, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is where you are most likely to see an ocelot, one of sixcat species found in North America. Ocelots used to range from South Texas up into Arkansas and Louisiana but today there are an estimated 50 ocelots that remain in the United States, including a breeding population found on the refuge.

Ocelots are different from most other cat species in that they can turn their ankle joints around which allows them to literally climb ‘down’ a tree. This important self-defense mechanism lets them escape from predators like mountain lion or bobcat, species of cats that cannot retract their claws (and must figure out how to get out of the tree they just climbed). Unlike most other cats, ocelots are also good swimmers.

These small cats need a lot of space. Male ocelots typically have a territory of about 25 square miles, while the females’ territory is around nine square miles. To warn other ocelots to stay away, they mark their territories in many ways, including spraying urine or leaving feces. Males in particular are very protective of their territories and will defend them to the death.

In South Texas, the ocelots’ diet consists mostly of rabbits, mice, rats and birds. They are nocturnal and like to travel under the cover of darkness. In the daytime, they rest often in the branches or hollow of a tree. The South Texas brush is made up of thorny and dense plants. Though it looks uninviting and painful to humans, to ocelots the thick brush means protection from danger, shade from the heat, shelter for sleeping, dens for having kittens and a place to call home

Females reach sexual maturity at about 18 months of age and the males at about 30 months. The female prepares a den in the protective cover of the thick and thorny brush and will give birth every other year to a litter of one or two kittens. She will raise the kittens who will stay with their mother for up to two years, at which point they will leave to establish their own territories.

The Challenge
Ocelots in the United States face several challenges. The biggest problem is loss of habitat. Throughout its range in the United States, ocelot’s habitat has been changed. Forests have been cut for timber, ranching, agriculture, and urban development leaving little dense cover for this secretive cat to call home. Add to that a period of unregulated pet trade and a fashion thirst for ocelot coats and the end result is a critically endangered cat. Even in their last stronghold, deep South Texas, more than 95% of their habitat has been lost.

In the last 75 years, the ocelots' native habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas has disappeared. The small amount that remains is often broken up into smaller tracts of land, fragmented by roads, fences, agriculture, golf courses and other development. This habitat loss and fragmentation has left ocelots stranded in small groups on isolated pockets of habitat. This in turn has led to other problems.

When an ocelot begins to mature, it must leave its parents and go out in search of its own territory. This can be a very dangerous time in an ocelot's life. Because so little habitat remains and so much is fragmented, the small cats must often travel long distances to find enough food, water and suitable habitat to survive and reproduce. Having to travel longer distances means having to cross dangerous highways and avoid urban areas and territories occupied by other ocelots. Too often ocelots are hit and killed by cars. Nearly half of the ocelots studied around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge have died as a result of getting hit by a car.

Researchers believe that ocelots in the United States are now split into two small groups, one population on the refuge and the other about 20 miles north on private lands. The two populations are separated by open areas where the habitat has been cleared or broken up by roads, houses, fences, farm fields, and other obstacles. The inability of these wild cats to reach other has resulted in inbreeding and loss of genetic health. They are becoming more and more genetically alike and are increasingly vulnerable to diseases and other health problems.
 
There Is Hope
To ensure this small, wild cat will always be around, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working on both its immediate and long-term needs. The long-term survival of the species must address the protection of habitat and the creation of wildlife corridors that allow the cats to disperse and strengthen genetic diversity. The protection and restoration of habitat is a top priority for Laguna Atascosa and its companion refuge, Lower Rio Grande Valley. In addition, the refuge tries to trap and put radio-collars on five to ten ocelots every year so biologists can monitor the cats’ movements and learn more about their habitat needs, movements and life history. Refuge staff partner with private landowners and non-profit organizations in the United States and Mexico interested in protecting and restoring ocelot habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also works with the Texas Department of Transportation to install ocelot crossings on highways to allow the cats and other wildlife to cross under roadways to keep them from getting hit by cars, the major cause of death in the United States for this small cat.  Public awareness plays a big role in the recovery of the ocelot, and the refuge gets the word out through participating in community events, interpretive tours and programs, environmental education with local schools and the annual Ocelot Conservation Festival. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife is working with the Mexican government to possibly translocate ocelot from Mexico into the United States’ population to increase genetic diversity. This is a work in progress whose outcome could have significant consequences for the ocelot population in the United States.
 

Facts About Ocelot

Also known as the ‘little leopard,’ ocelots are larger than a house cat but smaller than a bobcat.


They have a long, ringed tail that is about one third the length of their body. These cats are also recognized by their distinct spots and rounded ears.


They weigh anywhere from 20-35 pounds and are 16-20 inches in height.

Last Updated: Apr 21, 2014
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